This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
נִצָּבִים ~ Nitzavim
רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה ~ Rosh HaShannah
“Yes You Can”
As Moshe Rabbeinu continues to urge the B’nei Yisrael to maintain their devotion to Hashem and His Torah, Moshe proceeds to encourage them, describing the complete accessibility and comprehensibility of the Torah. Indeed, they could fulfill the Hashem’s Will, says Moshe Rabbeinu, “Ki HaMitzvah HaZos…Lo Nifleis Hi Mimcha V’Lo Rechokah Hi… Lo BaShamayim Hi… V’Lo Mei’Eiver LaYam Hi… Ki Karov Eilecha HaDavar Me’od B’ficha U’V’Levovcha LaAsoso”-“For this commandment…it is not foreign from [beyond] you and it is not distant… It is not in heaven… And it is not over the sea… Rather the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and your hearts to perform it” [Devarim 30:11-14]. From Moshe’s words, it seems that, according to the simple interpretation, because the Torah is so close to us, we should be able to fulfill it without problems; we should have absolutely no excuse not to.
Now, while it may be true that the Torah is not literally in the heavens or over the sea, it does not seem as easy as Moshe Rabbeinu describes it to be, to perform the Will of G-d and fulfill the Torah in its entirety. Hashem has bestowed upon us the conveniently poisonous combination of free choice and an Evil Inclination, both which make serving Him quite a challenging feat. With that in mind, what does Moshe Rabbeinu really mean when he says that that the Torah is so close to us? If it’s so close to us, why do so many of us still have such a difficult time performing it? Why do so many of us still transgress Hashem’s Torah? We’re all taught that none of us are perfect, all of us struggle when it comes to fulfilling the Torah, and as such, all of us need to exert ourselves every single day to improve our Avodas Hashem. That’s why we have the Yomim Nora’im (Days of Awe) coming up soon, so that we can all mend our relationships with Hashem and improve our Torah observance. If all of the above is true, it’s seems that Moshe’s statement is an exaggeration at best and not even true at all at worst.
Furthermore, although most M’forshim (Rashi, Maharsha to Eruvin [55A], Sforno, etc.) interpret this passage as being a description about the availability of Hashem’s Torah overall, the Ramban famously takes this passage a step further and explains that Moshe is referring to the accessibility of Teshuvah, repentance—not simply fulfilling, but returning to Hashem’s Torah, as the verse prior writes [30:10], “Ki Sishma B’Kol Hashem Elokecha…Ki Sashuv El Hashem Elokecha B’Chal Levov’cha U’V’Chal Nafsh’cha”-“For if you will listen to [lit., in] the voice of Hashem your G-d…then you will return to Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul.” In other words, it’s not merely that the Torah itself is apparently so readily accessible for us to both understand and perform its commandments, but even after we’ve somehow veered far away from Hashem and His Torah, have violated Hashem’s Will, and feel completely distant from it—even then—it is not merely accessible, but, “Karov Eilecha HaDavar Me’od”-“the matter is very close to you.” Teshuvah, says the Ramban, is “very close” to us, so that we should be able to just reach out and take it without any issues.
Now, for all of the same reasons, this assumption is difficult to understand. From personal experience, we all know that it’s not that simple! If fulfilling Torah is as challenging as we know it is, then Teshuvah, coming back to the Torah after having veered from it, would have to be all the more difficult. At that point, we have already used our free choice and followed the counsel of our Evil Inclinations. Would the idea of coming back to the Torah, then, not seem to be very distant from us? The very fact that we have veered so quickly from the Torah in the first place should demonstrate, first of all, that the fulfillment of the Torah is certainly not so easy at all. Second of all, naturally, once we have allowed our Evil Inclinations to accustom us to transgressing the Torah, making a one hundred eighty degree turn and returning to the Torah is unquestionably a foreign, counterintuitive concept. How is it, then, that fulfilling Hashem’s Torah and even doing Teshuvah close to us? In what sense, if at all, is the fulfilling and returning to the Torah something that is close to us, that we should just be able to reach out and take it?
As Rosh HaShannah approaches, the B’nei Yisrael turn their focus to the aforementioned topic and feat of Teshuvah, returning to Hashem. Indeed, Rosh HaShannah famously begins the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah, Ten Days of Repentance, which culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. What’s strange though is that Rosh HaShannah seems to have nothing to do with Teshuvah. Teshuvah and atonement appear nowhere in the Rosh HaShannah liturgy or in the Torah’s description of the day. The Torah merely refers to it as a day of “Zichron Teruah”-“Remembrance (service) of Shofar blasts” [Vayikra 23:24]. Yes, we listen to the Shofar blowing in Rosh HaShannah, but what does that have to do with doing Teshuvah, and what is the role of Rosh HaShannah, in our Teshuvah process?
We all know that Torah in general is not easy, and certainly, the Teshuvah process, is one of the most challenging parts of Avodas Hashem. In truth though, if we think about it, life itself isn’t easy. Most things that are worth having in life are not easily attainable. In fact, everything worth having in life requires our efforts, no matter how much effort we have to put in to get it. It requires something. Accordingly, we cannot assume that Moshe Rabbeinu meant to intimate that Torah and Teshuvah are easy things to accomplish. He says that they are very close to us, in our mouths and hearts. Indeed, in life, there are certain things that are more in our reach than others. Certain things are more accessible than others.
Now, we argued that that idea sounds like Torah and Teshuvah should be relatively easy for us, but we know they’re not. As we mentioned, we have free choice and Evil Inclinations—it’s not easy to fulfill the Will of G-d. If that’s the case, what benefit is it to us that Torah or Teshuvah is “very close to us” and “in our mouths and in our hearts” if we still have to exert ourselves an intense amount? It’s so close, yet so far away.
Now, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that everything in life is equally attainable, so the only real difference between that which you attain, and that which you do not is your choice in the matter. Will you choose to exert yourself to attain what is in front of you or not? It’s all a matter of choice. Now, many things might influence the choices we make. The challenge, as we keep on saying, is making the correct choices. But because of our inclinations, it’s not easy. The result is that even if we’ve developed slight interest in fulfilling the Torah and doing Teshuvah, we’re still feeling blocked from doing so. How then, can we succeed?
Before we can answer this question, we have to consider how it is that we succeed and achieve any of the things we want to in life, despite the obstacles. Certain things in life, we have particular affinity for—it is our passion to attain them. Disregarding the Evil Inclination to sin, we have other kinds of inclinations that are not so evil. We might be inclined to put food on our tables so that we can eat and survive. We might be inclined to have clothing and shelter, etc. We may even have our own specialized aspirations beyond our simple will to survive as well. For example, we might want to excel in a sport, hone and perfect a life skill or talent, amass and spread wisdom to the world, invent, and discover. Many of these things are very difficult tasks, but if you just look around, many of us either know people who have accomplished these physically and intellectually challenging feats, or are proceeding, without hesitation, to engage in such feats ourselves. Yes, it is challenging, possibly “distant” from us, and against the odds, but no matter what, we are going to exert ourselves and do our best to accomplish what we think is meaningful and fulfilling for us to accomplish. It’s not necessarily close to us, but because we’ve developed the passion for that goal, because we want to and have the will to accomplish it, despite counter inclinations against that goal, the feat becomes a step easier.
With this understand, accomplishing challenges becomes a matter of what we actually care about in life. What are our goals? Where does our passion lie? Where will I decide to exert myself, so that nothing in the world will stop me? In order to attain the fulfillment of Torah and even do Teshuvah, we have to get over that hurdle and make the first move. Once we have gotten over that hurdle though, the “Karov Eilecha HaDavar Me’od,” it’s really close—it’s right there, more attainable than any other life pursuit! But again, until we’ve been stirred to make that fateful choice, until it becomes our passion so that we will reach that goal no matter what, we will not exert ourselves and reach out hand to take it.
But, how do we get there? Naturally, we have passions for so many things. What if Torah isn’t one of them? We set goals for ourselves all the time, but, how are we supposed to be motivated to take that first step in the direction of Hashem’s Torah?
To answer this question, we have to look a little further into Moshe’s speech. He has just finished telling the B’nei Yisrael that the Torah or Teshuvah is at our reach—it’s not in the heavens; it is right there. But, as we’ve argued, it still seems difficult to reach—there’s a wall blocking us! But, then, Moshe Rabbeinu proceeds to reveal the secret to getting through the wall and attaining the goal. “Re’eih Nasati Lifanecha HaYom Es HaChayim V’Es HaTov V’Es HaMoves V’Es HaRa…U’Vacharta VaChaim L’ma’an Tichyeh…L’Ahavah Es Hashem Elokecha Lishmo’a B’Kolo U’L’Davka Vo Ki Hu Chayecha V’Orech Yamecha…”-“See I have placed before you today, life and goodness, and death and evil…and you shall choose life so that you shall live…to love Hashem your G-d, to listen to His voice, and to cleave with Him, for He is your life and your length of days…” [Devarim 30:11-19].
Moshe Rabbeinu enlightens us here as he awakens us to the reality, that it is a matter of life and death. This message does not mean necessarily that Hashem will kill a person for violating the Torah, but it means that if we respect anything meaningful in life—if we value true life itself—which all of us do, then we have to realize that life itself is meaningful only because Hashem put us here with a mission, to fulfill His Torah! And without that mission, we are as good as not living at all. Yes, there are a bunch of other wonderful things to do while we’re here in this world, but our main goal is Torah. He put us here so that we can achieve the goal of returning to Him, the life mission of Teshuvah. And as Moshe Rabbeinu described earlier, it is so close, in our mouths and hearts—because it is our essence, it is our life and length of days! We merely have to realize it! Thus, Moshe says, “U’Vacharta VaChaim”-“and you shall choose life,” not merely as a commandment, but as a statement of certainty—because, we are naturally inclined to choose life. Of course, we should choose life. Living life is our most natural inclination. When we realize what meaning in life truly is and value it, our passions will follow that value, and of course we will reach out and grasp the Torah.
Indeed, awakening ourselves, realizing the true meaning of life and developing the passion for Torah and Teshuvah is the goal of Rosh HaShannah. We do not engage in Teshuvah per se on Rosh HaShannah, rather, we spend hours crowning G-d through our prayers and inspiring ourselves to the truth of life’s purpose, so that Torah fulfillment and Teshuvah becomes the obvious next step. We awaken ourselves with the sound of the Shofar and engage in introspection. That is the meaning of “Zichron Teruah,” that through the medium of the Shofar blasts, we stimulate ourselves to remember our essence, to remind ourselves what is truly important in our lives. The essence of life itself is none other than our relationship with Hashem. In that vein, being inscribed into the Book of Life means being inscribed for connection to life in its truest essence, our relationship with Hashem.
Thus, the first step of the Teshuvah process begins on Rosh HaShannah when we breach the wall that separates our passions from Hashem’s Torah, the wall that keeps us from setting our goals in the first place. Once we stop what we’re doing—whatever pursuits we may be involved in—and merely listen, not just to the Shofar, but the voice of G-d that is telling us what is truly important, we will be able to overcome all challenges because we will value our relationship to Hashem’s Torah and choose life, for it is the single closest matter to us, our life and length of days.
May we all be Zocheh to realize that Hashem and His Torah are our life and essence, set the right goals that will allow us to return to Him and His Torah, overcome all challenges, and we should truly earn the arrival of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! L’Shannah Tovah Nichaseiv V’Neichaseim! Have a Great Shabbos, a Chag Samei’ach/Gut Yom Tov, and Shannah Tovah!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂